A blog entry from July, 2011
Last Friday was my last day in leadership at Sunnyside Coffee House. My church would still be a part of cooking and serving food, once a month, but my bi-weekly visiting and praying with and serving the mentally ill and homeless of SE Portland is over. For now.
I was pretty sad about the whole thing. We cooked and served spaghetti (fresh basil and beef in the sauce, which was great) and then stood up to lead prayer. I announced my leaving and that Mark Woodson would take over. Many people clapped. Now, Mark Woodson used to lead the coffee house years before, so it was probably just joy that he’s coming back. But it felt like a slap across my face. I’ve regularly worked twelve hour days for these people, making sure that had enough to eat and stuff to take home. I’ve worked hard at creating a place of peace, so people would feel safe coming in, where there used to be people yelling and obnoxious shouting almost every week. I’ve been threatened, yelled at, cleaned up overflowing toilets, cleaned out a back storage room full of mouse feces. We have prayed people’s healings in, we had two weddings there, we showed movies, laughed and loved together. And I was deeply shamed at the rejoicing of my leaving.
At that point I remembered a story of Francis of Assisi. It’s pretty long, so I won’t quote the whole thing, but the summary is Francis saying, “Perfect joy is serving and suffering for your brothers only to have them reject you.” You can read it all here: The Perfect Joy of St. Francis
I said to myself, “Well, I guess no good deed goes unpunished. I just need to chalk this one up for eternal reward.” I was being pretty self-pitying, really.
As the evening wore on, it was clear that it was two of us: Styxx and myself, cooking and serving and cleaning for the hundred or so people who showed up. It’s a big job, but we were experienced and knew what we were in for. Pretty soon we had a number of people come up and thank us for the food, “This is some of the best food I’ve had.” Wow. Many times people would come and complain about the free food they received. This was different. A couple came up and asked, “Could you use some help?” and I honestly replied, “Yeah, we should could.” They came in and helped serve seconds to folks as I went into the men’s room to mop up an overflowing toilet.
In another twenty minutes, others, who did not ask to help, voluntarily wiped down all the tables, put the chairs up and swept up. Behind the counter, the couple cleaned up the counters and stove. All this work probably cut an hour off of Styxx and my evening.
A bit later Joline came up. She’s an older Native American woman who’s lived on the street for many years. She wasn’t doing well tonight. She was either a little drunk or sick or just depressed. She said, “Thank you for all you’ve done. Here’s what I have.” And she put in my hand her last eighty cents.
At this point I realized that Francis was wrong. Perfect joy isn’t being rejected. Perfect joy is working to build community where there was none before. Perfect joy is seeing people act like Jesus, especially those whom people say could never be discipled. Perfect joy is seeing God at work.
An old man, trapped on a small island of cement in the middle of 82nd avenue, crying.
I pull over and brave the current of prisoners, being swept north in their bubbles of metal and plastic……
I reach the island and its lone resident, hugging desperately to a worn and tattered 18 inch long teddy bear, weeping uncontrollably for the answer of why his mother abandoned him 75 years ago on this very spot. This island of cement had become a memorial for this once child of 8 years.
It was 1935 and it was autumn for the leaves were changing. His name is Marcus Samuel Barker. His Dad had died the year before of the Flu. “Mom had a chance at a job, but couldn’t have me with her. So she gave me $2 and a blanket, then climb on the wagon and left. I tried to follow,” he said, “but the wagon sped up and left me behind. I started walking towards the river and came to a church and went in. It was warm and quiet and I went up front to ask God why?
“While I was waiting for God to answer I fell asleep on the altar. Turned out to be a Franciscan Church and a priest found me and they kept me and so I eventually became a priest.”
Then he said,” I just retired.”
Then this sheepish grin came over his face and he whispers, “Well you never really retire….” Then with a sigh and the drying of the eyes and the blowing of the nose he says, “So each year I come here and pray and weep for my mother, even though she is long dead.”
Then together we braved the flow of traffic and I offered him a ride home. He accepts but insists on buying me a soda.
As we sit in a little dive on Foster, Marcus is staring into his glass and then says, “You’re a pastor or a priest, aren’t you?”
I smiled and said, “Guilty as charged.”
“ I knew it,” he said. “Only a priest would sit in the middle of a four lane road and listen to and old man’s story.”
Smiling I say, “Convicted as charged. But! I am not Catholic I am Celtic.”
Marcus waves his hand as though brushing off the answer. “You are a Shepherd just as I am. We both serve the King. We are brothers!”
The meeting was over and I dropped him off at the door of Our Lady of Sorrows just in time for Mass. Marcus laid his hand on my shoulder and prayed for me and then with a wink and a smile says, “See ya pastor,” and gets out and slips into the doorway of the Church.
On a side note; Marcus went home to the Lord last year.
Buster didn’t really like me. I was new to the homeless scene and while he appreciated the food on occasion, he knew I was there to “save people’s souls” and he thought that I was as much use as a fourth leg on a tripod. But what most of the homeless know is that a middle-class pastor is a connection to the outside world, and sometimes that connection is necessary. And this day, Buster really needed me.
It must have been serious because I didn’t see Buster very often. He had a long trek, perhaps two hours, to get to the church, but he was there. After taking a breather, he approached me and said, “We need to talk.” I was a bit mystified because Buster had never needed to “talk” to me before. He talked about me, or at me, but never to me. So we stepped aside into my “office” (the middle of a field) and he said, “It’s about Bill.”
Ah. Bill was Buster’s camp-mate and drinking partner. Bill was an older gentleman, with an emphasis on the gentleman. He was always polite and kind, if a little self-absorbed. He had often showed up to church sober, only to have a seizure in the middle of the service. Over the year I knew him, Bill was gradually losing his sight. At first he was losing his night vision, but it gradually became worse so that Buster was leading him to wherever he needed to go. And after a month this, Buster needed to talk to me about Bill. This can’t be good.
“He’s going crazy. He’ll wake up in the middle of the night, screaming. And he’s always talking to people who aren’t there. He’ll wander off and fall. I’m afraid he’s really going to hurt himself. Could you get him into a hospital?”
“What kind of hospital, Buster?”
“He’s crazy. He needs to be taken care of.”
“Well, I can’t put him in a hospital, but maybe I could talk to him and convince him to go to a hospital to get checked out, and they could make their own decision.”
“Sure, that would be great.”
So I got the directions to their camp (behind-the-store-down-the-street-end-of-the-cul-de-sac-behind-the-wall-next-to-the-ditch) and agreed to seek Bill out at about 8 in the morning.
It took me a minute to find the camp, but the directions were quite accurate. At the end of the wall were three tents, next to the ditch. I did typical camp ettiqute, calling out “Hello!” before I reached the camp.
No response. That was odd because Buster said he’d make sure Bill was there. Perhaps Bill was still asleep, so I approached each of the tents, calling out his name. After that got no response, I called out Buster’s name. Nothing.
I wandered a bit further out. I saw a neat pile of camping gear to one side. Frankly, they kept a nice camp. No piles of trash, and the bathroom spot out of sight. That’s pretty good for a couple alcoholics. My respect for Buster deepened. He really knew how to live on the street. Keep a low profile, keep your camp neat, be polite to neighbors and they’ll leave you alone. And he was helping Bill all day, every day for months. He was rough-spoken, but a good man.
But I was still mystified. Perhaps Bill insisted to go with Buster. I looked around once more and then I saw.
About twenty feet away from the tents was a concrete ditch. And at the bottom of the ditch was a body, face down.
I climbed down the steep walls of the ditch, and shook the body. “Bill… Bill?” Nothing. I turned his face. Yep, it’s Bill. His lips were pale. His face was cold.
I climbed out of the ditch, pulled out my cell phone and dialed 911. “I think my friend is dead. He’s at the bottom of a concrete ditch.”
A half hour later, after his death was confirmed, a police officer came up to me and said, “You don’t look good. You’ve never done this before, huh?” I hadn’t. It wouldn’t be my last time calling in the coroner.
I looked up then and saw Buster walking up, seeing me and all the emergency services activity and looking confused. I went to him and just said, “He’s passed away, Buster.” For the first and last time, Buster and I held on to each other, needing the others’ support.
A few days later I called the coroner and asked him how Bill had died, wondering if he had wandered in the night and hit his head. “William didn’t die right away,” he said. “Although he hit his head, he didn’t have any internal bleeding. He died of hypothermia.” He froze to death on the concrete in the middle of the night, just far enough away from the tents that no one could hear him calling.
Buster met me later in the week and handed me a phone number. “This is the number of Bill’s sister-in-law. His family is back East. Could you give them a call and let them know?” Of course.
I call her and try to gently tell her the news. “So Bill was in Portland?”, she asked. Yes. “And he died of hypothermia at the bottom of a ditch?” Yes. “Good. After what he did to this family, he deserves whatever he got. You can be sure that I’ll let the family know and they’ll be happy about it. I’m sure he’ll go to hell. Thanks for your call.” And she hung up.
I have no idea what Bill did. I know that he spent some time in prison for it and ran across the nation to escape the shame of it. I suspect it was the shame that caused him to drink and to wake up in the middle of the night screaming, talking to people who weren’t there. I’m not sure, but that’s what I think.
But Bill was mourned in Portland, if nowhere else. We held a small memorial service. And I know that the traditional homeless mourning ceremony was also held—his friends gathered together, scraped up money for a beer each, and they each poured out their beer on the ground in memory of their friend. A drink and grain offering in memory of the dead.
May God have mercy on his soul. For few had mercy for him on earth.
Chuck is a great person at Anawim. He is in subsidized housing and has most of his needs met. But he still needs friends, people to listen to him and love, just like the rest of us, and those are things that no government or corporation can give. He has some good friends in Anawim, like Cheryl, and some good friends in a Catholic church he attends, like Bob.
Chuck loves singing and is often seen walking down the street with his large headphones on, dancing to the praise music he listens to. He likes to make videos and he just made one about his trip to Bend, OR, which was very cool.
Besides worship, Chuck comes over to Anawim every week to work. He will pull weeds, clean bathrooms, whatever needs to be done. Earlier this year, Chuck prepared a bed to plant corn because he wants to make a meal for the homeless with corn, rice and chicken. I’m glad he didn’t want to start a chicken coop!
Chuck also has a heart for those who are suffering or weak. He has a great compassion for those who are mourning, or in pain, or more disabled than he. He always speaks words of encouragement to them.
Praise God for Chuck! We’re so glad he’s a part of Anawim!
Yesterday I was having a conversation with a brother and some how the conversation ended up on wealth and leaving and inheritance to my children. He quoted some passage and asked how I justified my self for I have no wealth that if I died today I couldn’t even afford a decent funeral. I said nothing, I just sat their staring down into my now cold coffee.
When he had finished with his…..exhortation I looked up and said, “Well, ya know, Jesus said we weren’t suppose to store up our treasures where rust and mold could get at it or where others could steal it. And nowadays we find that the banks are filled with thieves and our government is constantly trying to stick their hands into our pockets, even us who don’t have pockets.
“But seriously, my son enjoys the inheritance of my provision right now for he has embraced Christ and has passed the inheritance on to his son, my grandson, already; where as your kids have to wait for you to kick the bucket. I will say that mine are the richer and it appears my friend that I am richer than you.”
At this he shook his head and tossed me the bill and walked out and as I walked to the register Karen the waitress smiled and said, “This one is on me.”
From November, 2011